Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Tales of Hoffmann
Powell and Pressburger’s ballet-oriented film of Offenbach’s opera of Hoffmann’s tales . . . as rich and strange a confection as the cinema ever produced, with astonishing work from Moira Shearer as the dancing automaton Olympia (whose absurd demise,with broken springs coiling out of her severed head, I always find shocking and sad) and Robert Helpmann as Hoffmann’s multifaced archenemy. With effects technique that could have been used by Méliès and gorgeous color art direction, costuming, and cinematography.
What’s the most chilling last line in the cinema? How about “cranial drill”? Followed by an unforgettable sound effect. John Frankenheimer’s nightmarish adaptation of David Ely’s be-careful-what-you-wish-for novel has a weary, middle-aged businessman (John Randolph) buy out of his old life and be transformed into Rock Hudson, only to find that renewed youth isn’t satisfying. A unique, affecting, paranoid science-fiction film noir, with a perfectly cast Hudson doing his best-ever screen acting and the too-seldom-used Salome Jens an extraordinary presence as the girl on the beach.
The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton’s only film as director, scripted by James Agee from the book by Davis Grubb. It’s a fairy-tale version of a crime-suspense drama, as two children are pursued through a magical, haunted landscape by a demented yet canny preacher (Robert Mitchum). There’s a grown-up story about a stash of stolen money, but Laughton’s masterstroke is to ignore that and present the human monster from the children’s point of view, as a remorseless bogeyman.
Eyes Without a Face
A lurid mad-scientist drama—scripted by Boileau and Narcejac, also of Diabolique and Vertigo, and filmed by Georges Franju as a mix of surgical surrealism, hyper-graphic horror, raincoated French policier and Cocteau-ish magical romance. Edith Scob drifts through corridors in a blank white mask and a nightgown, and Alida Valli stalks her prey in a Citroën 2CV, accompanied by Maurice Jarre’s shuddery score.
A lullaby for the Antichrist, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s diabolic best seller has Manhattanite Rosemary (Mia Farrow) slowly coming to believe that her husband (John Cassavetes), nosy neighbor (Ruth Gordon), and almost everyone else in their apartment building are conspiring against her . . . and that the child she is carrying is the prophesied spawn of Satan. The chanting and summoning are solemn yet absurd, but the sense of betrayal and a world turned against a lone woman makes this an enduring nightmare.
The Spirit of the Beehive
Not a horror movie but a valentine to the imagination that hinges on one little girl’s need for an imaginary friend, who turns out to be Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, stepped off the screen in rural Spain when a traveling cinema brings James Whale’s movie to town in the 1930s. Victor Erice’s study of childhood wishes showcases the huge eyes of Ana Torrent and grapples fascinatingly with the importance of fantasy in eras of repression.
Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel
The Most Dangerous Game
Made on the wonderful jungle sets of King Kong while that epic’s special effects were being finished, this is one of the great action-horror films and has provided a template for many “rich sicko” melodramas—the entire “torture porn” subgenre springs from the obsessions of its villain, Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). Adapted from a short story by Richard Connell and codirected by Kong’s Ernest B. Schoedsack and character actor Irving Pichel, it has one of the most perfect plots in horror: a big-game hunter (Joel McCrea) changes his mind about how much fun his preferred sport is when he’s shipwrecked on an island where a mad Russian who’s grown tired of lesser game has opted to hunt human beings. Fay Wray, another Kong holdover, screams on the sidelines, and a pack of baying hounds provides additional menace.
Brian De Palma
Brian DePalma’s breakthrough thriller pays homage to several Hitchcock classics—Rear Window and Psycho, mostly—in a genuinely innovative manner, with jittery, counter-culture-ish New York wiseass humor rather than Hitch’s British wryness, an interesting set of mirror image antagonists in peculiar twins played by Margot Kidder (with a seductively odd French-Canadian accent), and nosy reporter Jennifer Salt. It has graphic shocks but also stretches of hallucinatory strangeness.
The Living Skeleton
To be found in the When Horror Came to Shochiku set from Eclipse, Horishi Matsuno’s engagingly demented Japanese picture jumbles gruesome crime, supernatural vengeance, psychic twins, mad science, and strange sea story—it may never settle on a tone, but its unpredictability is compelling. Haunted by her twin sister, who was murdered during a pirate attack, Saeko is mentored by a priest whose cool sunglasses conceal an evil secret identity and scars. Other pirate victims appear as living skeletons who inhabit a wreck and bring about the deaths of their murderers, and there’s also a mad scientist with vampire tendencies in the mix.
A classic ghost story, from a novel by Dorothy Macardle, directed by Lewis Allen. Brother and sister Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey buy a cliff-top home in Cornwall that turns out to be haunted by at least two spirits and one still-living person . . . the waif Gail Russell, who is drawn to the room where her mother supposedly died. It’s one of those Hollywood films that was too sophisticated for the censors, with several transgressive elements (lesbianism, illegitimacy) couched tactfully and woven deeply into the mystery.
Brian Raftery’s Top 10
The year 1999 may be this culture critic’s favorite in Hollywood history (he just wrote a book on the subject!), but the Criterion films he holds most dear span a number of different eras.